Connacht meet Cardiff Blues at the Sportsground on Friday at 7:35pm as the defending champions look to begin their climb up the Guinness PRO12 standings.
With only two wins to their name so far in the league, Pat Lam’s side currently sit tenth in the standings – albeit with a game in hand after their Zebre clash was called off earlier in the season.
Meanwhile, the Blues ended a three-match losing run in the league last time out with victory against Benetton Treviso.
What’s at stake? Currently down in tenth, Connacht are hoping to get back into contention for the play-offs and claim their third league victory of the season at the Sportsground.
The Blues started the season in fine form with four wins on the spin but currently sit just outside the top six after a mini slump.
Team news (Connacht): Trio Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney and John Cooney have all returned from injury to take their place in the starting XV. James Cannon also makes his first Connacht and Guinness PRO12 start alongside Irish international Quinn Roux in the second row.
The most notable inclusion among the replacements is Marnitz Boshoff. The South African is in line to make his Connacht debut having arrived in Ireland last month following his commitments in the Currie Cup competition.
Team news (Cardiff Blues): Danny Wilson has made a total of 13 changes to the side that faced the Ospreys in the Anglo-Welsh Cup as attention turns back to Guinness PRO12 action with Ellis Jenkins handed the captain’s armband.
Blaine Scully and Rey Lee-Lo return following their international exploits, with USA and Samoa respectively, and are joined in the backline by scrum-half Tomos Williams, who has been released by Wales.
Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey and Scott Andrews have also been made available to start in the front row, while Josh Navidi has recovered from injury to start at No.8.
Talking points: While Connacht’s stuttering start to the defence of their historic Guinness PRO12 title will be garnering the column inches, the Cardiff Blues have looked very impressive at times this season.
Danny Wilson’s side made a flying start to the campaign and currently seventh, are perfectly placed to make a run at the play-offs during this back end of the autumn internationals.
Their head-to-head record with Connacht is impressive also, they have only lost one of the last six meetings and won 20 of 26 overall.
Key Battle: Tom James v Niyi Adeolokun
Less than two weeks after making his Ireland debut against Canada, wing Adeolokun starts on the right wing for Connacht.
One of the heroes of last year’s fairytale run to the title, the speedster has four tries already this season but he will have his work cut out for him this week on the defensive end.
He is up against James who has made more clean breaks (13) than any other player in the league and has dotted down five times already.
Key stat: Connacht have already been defeated by the other three Welsh regions this season.
Lions contenders: Cian Kelleher and Niyi Adeolokun are turning heads out wide for Connacht but the Blues have a couple of former Lions in their matchday 23.
2013 Lion Alex Cuthbert, who crossed for a try in the first Test win, has been released by Wales this weekend and is on the bench as is 2009 tourist and hooker Matthew Rees.
Did you know? The Blues’ only away defeat in the Guinness PRO12 since March came when they visited Ospreys on 7 October.
Connacht: C Kelleher, N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, S Ili, J Carty, J Cooney, D Buckley, T McCartney, C Carey, Q Roux, J Cannon, E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon
Replacements: D Heffernan, R Loughney, JP Cooney, L Stevenson, N Fox-Matamua, C Blade, M Boshoff, D Poolman
Top Points Scorer: J Carty 45pts. Top Try Scorer: N Adeolokun 4 .
Cardiff Blues: D Fish, B Scully, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, T James, S Shingler, T Williams, R Gill, K Dacey, S Andrews, G Earle, J Hoeata, J Turnbull, E Jenkins, J Navidi
Replacements: M Rees, B Thyer, T Filise, M Cook, S Lewis-Hughes, R Davies, A Cuthbert, M Morgan
Top Points Scorer: S Shingler 52pts. Top Try Scorer: T James 5.
TV: TG4 (KO 7.35pm)
Match officials – Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU). Assistant Referee 1: Simon Rees (WRU). AR2: John Carvill (IRFU) TMO: Charles Samson (SRU).
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 26, Connacht won 4, Cardiff Blues won 20 with 2 games drawn.
At Sportsground, 7.35pm Live on TG4
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU, 141st competition game)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees (WRU), John Carvill (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Eddie Wigglesworth (IRFU)
TMO: Charles Samson (SRU)
John Cooney scored 13 points as defending Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht won their third league game of the season with a tight 18-7 victory against Cardiff Blues.
The scrum-half scored the first try of the night from close range, before the Welsh side hit back through Wales international winger Tom James.
But Cooney’s expert kicking regained Connacht the lead, before centre Bundee Aki finished off a nice, flowing move in the second period to trake the wind out of Cardiff’s sails.
The Blues applied plenty of second-half pressure in a bid to get back into the game but, Connacht held on for a crucial win.
With Wales due to play their last international match of the year this weekend, the Blues saw seveal of their international stars return.
But the Blues opted to leave winger Alex Cuthbert on the bench, while fly-half Gareth Anscombe was not involved.
Both sides showed plenty of attacking intent in the early stages, as Connacht fly-half Jack Carty made a dangerous run, while the Blues’ passing game offered promise.
In such an open game, the first try was unlikely to be far away and so it proved as the defending champions struck through scrum-half Cooney after a powerful scrum.
But the Blues, not to be outdone, fought back and levelled the scores quickly as in-form winger James intercepted a lose Carty pass to score his seventh try of the season.
And the Welsh side had a chance to take the lead after the referee awarded them a kickable penalty, but Steven Shingler pulled his effort wide.
The Blues continued on the front foot as full-back Dan Fish narrowly missed out on a try after he was marginally beaten in a foot race to his kick over the top.
But Connacht led at the break after another powerful scrum forced a penalty, which Cooney comfortably knocked over.
And the no.9 extended their advantage after the break with his second penalty after the referee spotted a tackle off the ball, before being replaced by 22-year-old Caolan Blade.
Blade almost made an immediate impact as he burst through the Blues defence, before the ball was later knocked on.
But they could not stop the hosts from scoring for their second try minutes later as winger Niyi Adeolokun split open the defence and centre Aki touched down.
Now trailing by 11 points, Cardiff started to play with more urgency as Rey Lee-Lo and substitute Matthew Morgan linked up nicely down the left wing, but the ball was lost by Tomos Williams at the base of a ruck.
And minutes later they thought they were back in it when Morgan touched down in the corner, only for the TMO to rule it out for a knock-on.
The Blues continued to ask questions of the Connacht defence with a series of line-outs in the Irish side’s 22, but the home side’s defence remained firm to the end.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final